Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Remembering that anxiety and panic attacks are thankfully only temporary can be difficult when you’re in the midst of one. Even though most attacks only last around 10 to 30 minutes at most, they can feel like an eternity and leave you mentally and physically drained for the rest of the day.
Fortunately, there are plenty of coping skills to help make your anxiety attacks easier to handle. As someone with panic disorder and agoraphobia, even leaving the house can trigger my anxiety.
I’ve spent many years trying out different coping skills to help minimize the effects of my panic attacks, and I’d like to share and briefly discuss the most effective ones that I wish I knew about sooner.
But first, what’s the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack?
Anxiety Attacks Vs. Panic Attacks
While these terms are often used interchangeably, they do have three key differences:
Panic attacks start suddenly with no identifiable triggers, while anxiety attacks have distinct triggers that cause their onset.
Currently, “anxiety attack” is a more general, colloquial term, while panic attacks have an official clinical definition and are considered one of the main criteria for panic disorder and other anxiety disorders.
The DSM-V currently doesn’t specifically define anxiety attacks but rather recognizes anxiety in general as a symptom of many different disorders.
Despite these differences, the ways in which anxiety attacks and panic attacks manifest are very similar. Most coping skills that work for one type of attack will also be effective for the other and vice versa.
1. Use the 5-4-3-2-1 method.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a type of coping skill known as a grounding technique. Grounding techniques can help anxiety sufferers use their five senses to divert their attention from their panic attacks and focus on their immediate surroundings, sort of as a distraction, until the anxiety subsides.
In the middle of a panic attack, it can feel like your mind is detaching from reality entirely, which is also known as derealization and depersonalization. Grounding techniques help offset this unsettling and frightening feeling.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method works like this:
When you feel a panic or anxiety attack coming on, make a mental note of five things you can see around you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a chair, a window, or a funny poster on the wall--just mentally catalogue five things in your immediate vicinity.
Pay attention to four things you can touch around you. Wiggle your toes in your shoes or run a hand through your hair, for example.
Make a mental note of three things you can hear around you. Are cars driving by outside? Maybe there’s a dog barking in the distance. Either way, acknowledge three things you can hear.
Acknowledge two things you can smell around you. Whether it’s your perfume, laundry detergent, or a smelly trash can in the room, find two distinct scents to focus on for a moment.
Focus on one thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like? Whether it’s a specific flavor of toothpaste or whatever you ate recently, focus briefly on the taste.
By the time you reach the fifth step, you will have grounded yourself, and the worst parts of the attack will hopefully have passed. Go through the steps again if needed.
2. Take some deep breaths and focus on your breathing.
An anxiety or panic attack can make you feel like you can’t breathe, which only increases your anxiety and worsens the attack.
There are many great breathing exercises you can use to regulate your breathing and mitigate that awful feeling of breathlessness commonly brought on by anxiety attacks, most of which involve breathing in for a certain number of seconds, holding your breath for a few seconds, and then breathing out for a certain number of seconds.
One exercise I find particularly helpful is the 4-7-8 method, popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil. It works like this:
Exhale through your mouth.
Inhale through your nose for four seconds.
Hold your breath for seven seconds.
Slowly exhale through your mouth for eight seconds.
Repeat for at least three to five cycles.
I like this method a lot because the difficulty breathing associated with anxiety and panic attacks is almost as stressful as whatever triggered the attack to begin with.
By becoming more aware of my breathing and taking slow, deliberate breaths, I’m able to think more clearly and rationally.
3. Acknowledge that you’re having an anxiety/panic attack.
I realize this one sounds a bit counterintuitive at first, but you never want to fight, ignore, or repress an anxiety or panic attack, as this will only worsen and prolong the attack’s effects.
Instead, I try to practice self-awareness and remind myself that yes, I’m having a panic attack, but it’ll be over soon, even if it feels like everything is closing in on me in the moment.
First, quietly acknowledge the fact that you’re having an anxiety or panic attack. Remind yourself that, A., the world is not actually ending, and B., your anxiety is not necessarily a true reflection of reality.
For me, it helps to repeat a simple, reassuring mantra to myself during my panic attacks to keep myself grounded. For example, “It’s only temporary. You’re having a pretty bad panic attack, but you’re going to be okay.”
This simple exercise gives me the self-awareness and confidence I need to get through the worst of my panic attacks even when I can’t focus long enough to utilize one of the aforementioned methods.
There are, of course, plenty of other great techniques out there to cope with anxiety and panic attacks, but the above methods are my top three go-to’s. Let us know if these coping skills helped you or what methods you prefer!